There is an eternal, somewhat doomed sense of hope among the Beijing or Sichuan or Cantonese food snobs I know that one of these days, or even one of these decades, a truly exceptional high-end Chinese restaurant will land unexpectedly in our midst, like some gilded star craft from outer space. This restaurant will not be the clubby, overpriced satellite of some formerly Michelin-praised joint in London or Singapore. The noodles and dumpling skins will be hand rolled in-house, instead of trucked in from some market downtown. The menu will be filled with stately renditions of old and new banquet classics (suckling pig, please), the prices will not rise as (inevitably) the quality levels off, and the highly credentialed captain of this starship (from Chengdu or Guangzhou or Taipei) will actually stay in town for a year or two, before settling in the suburbs of L.A. or Richmond, Virginia, like the best chefs from China tend to do.
On the surface at least, La Chine, which opened several months ago in the former Oscar’s space on the ground floor of the Waldorf-Astoria, would seem to be just such a place. The hotel was purchased two years ago by a Chinese insurance company, after all, and the new owners have hired a fancy chef-consultant to help “exquisitely articulate the complexity of Chinese flavors,” as the restaurant’s website puts it. The dark, bunkered dining room has been fitted with a black lacquer bar trimmed with gold, plum-blossom-twig wallpaper, and galloping horses painted along a sepia-toned mural. The tables are set with long-handled spoons and two sets of chopsticks, just like in the grand restaurants of Shanghai or Taipei. “The white one is for sharing, the black is for personal use,” intoned our waiter, who wore a neatly pressed white jacket and comes to Manhattan by way of Hong Kong and his home borough of Staten Island.
The chief of this lavish starship operation, at least in its early stages, is a well-traveled chef named Kong Khai Meng, who comes to New York in a similar circuitous fashion, by way of a multitude of international fine-dining start-ups in places like the W Taipei, the Dragon Hotel in Hangzhou, and the Jumeirah Mina A’Salam in Dubai (where he also served, according to his lengthy bio, as “the Chinese corporate chef for the Royal Family Zabeel Kitchen of His Highness”). As it happens, Kong isn’t actually from China (he grew up in Singapore). The kind of elaborately sourced, “Pan Chinese” hotel cooking he specializes in is a fairly recent development in the long history of Chinese cuisine, and much of it would be only vaguely recognizable to anyone who grew up enjoying the delicate soups and stews of Shanghai, say, or the fiery regional specialties of Hunan or Sichuan.
The menu at La Chine is an abbreviated one by Chinese standards (it’s arranged in Western-style appetizer, entrée, and “to share” format) and even contains a trendy New York-style raw-bar section, inspired, our friendly Staten Island waiter said, by delicacies from the coastal province of Zhejiang. Not that you’ll find buttons of sweet lobster tail like this anywhere along the coast of central China (it’s trucked in from the American coastal province of Maine and dressed, excellently, with slips of daikon marinated in cinnamon and star anise, among other things), or pieces of equally excellent fluke doused with an ethereal substance called “smoked peony oil.” The tuna tartare at this Chinese restaurant contains sesame seeds, baby tomatoes, and little pockets of caviar, and you can enjoy it on a cold winter’s evening with bowls of eggy, restorative “Eight Hour Golden Broth” folded with bits of crabmeat and more lobster from Maine.
Some of Chef Kong’s classic compositions have a slightly more denatured quality to them, but if you choose wisely (and have some cash in your pocket), you can make a decent meal. The great Sichuan specialties — chicken with cashews, chilled chicken with pepper sauce and peanuts — tasted like toothless imitations of the real thing, although none of the grizzled New Yorkers at my table had any complaints about the sticky Taiwanese-style spare ribs (bone in, with a tangy kumquat glaze) or the stack of crisped Spanish mackerel, which the kitchen scents with puffs of smoke tinged with the kind of flower you usually find in your Chinese tea. Chef Kong’s wan approximation of Peking duck had a wet, un-crispy quality to it, as if it had just been run slowly through the kitchen dishwasher, but the wok-fried long beans with minced pork disappeared from the table in seconds, as did the strips of Berkshire-pork collar, which the kitchen encrusts in a thick crackle of honey from the rooftop apiary like some extravagant millionaire’s version of Chinatown char sui.
So is La Chine the great Chinese restaurant New York has been waiting for? The consensus among the hopeful experts at my table was a probably not (“A good overseas Chinese restaurant,” one of them called it), although those of us on expense accounts agreed we’d be happy to return for a taste of house specials like the egg custard, stuffed with bits of hairy crab and served on a nest of straw. There have been the usual rumors (hotly denied by the hotel) that Starship Captain Kong may soon jet off to some distant corner of the luxury-hotel start-up galaxy, but even if this happens, I doubt it will affect the quality of the impressive tea selection (try the “Dong Ding” rolled oolong from Taiwan), or even the elaborate fusion desserts, which include chocolate cake spiked, pleasantly, with Sichuan peppers, and an entire poached Bosc pear flavored, much less pleasantly, with a substance called peach-tree gum.*BEGIN SLIDESHOW